Voters approve Kansas City bus tax overwhelmingly, but in no mood for new county use tax

Voters approve Kansas City bus tax overwhelmingly, but in no mood for new county use tax

More than 73% of Kansas City voters approved extending the 3/8-cent sales tax that supports bus service within Kansas City’s boundaries.
November 7, 2023

By Mike Hendricks | Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, MO. — Kansas City voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot issue Tuesday extending for another 10 years a sales tax that supports the city’s bus system.

But Jackson County voters were in no mood to approve new taxes in a year when many of them will see their property taxes rise due to the biennial reassessment process. By a landslide 59% opposed, voters rejected a proposed new use tax on on-line purchases, which the Jackson County Legislature placed on the ballot over the objections of County Executive Frank White Jr..

“We had to do the sales tax for transportation, which I thought was a very important tax at this time,” he said in a phone call Tuesday night. “But from the county perspective, I just didn’t think it was a good time for us to put a use tax on the ballot, based on it’s being a reassessment year and so forth.”

Meanwhile, more than 73% of Kansas City voters approved extending the 3/8-cent sales tax that supports bus service within Kansas City’s boundaries.

That sales tax provides about 30% of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority’s budget and was set to expire in March. Had voters not renewed it, Frank White, III, president & CEO of KCATA, had warned that it would mean a “significant reduction” in bus service.

Routes might have been eliminated or schedules reduced. About 100 jobs would have been eliminated, the KCATA said. Officials estimated that the tax will raise about $400 million for bus service over the next 10 years.

Among those who campaigned in support of the tax were KCATA workers, the Kansas City area chapter of the AFL-CIO and the Sunrise Movement KC, which describes itself as “a cross-class, multi-racial movement of young people fighting for a livable future.”

The city has levied a separate, half-cent sales tax to fund bus service since 1971 that is not subject to voter approval. The 3/8-cent tax was added in 2004 through a public vote the previous year .

Like now, had the tax not passed then, the KCATA would have had to cut its budget by 25% by eliminating eight bus routes, reducing service on 19 others and cutting service on Sunday and Saturday night.

The tax was supposed to phase out after five years and be replaced by a bi-state transit tax, but that never happened. Instead, Kansas City voters overwhelmingly renewed the tax in the fall of 2008 for 15 years.

The KCATA also receives federal aid and coordinates bus service throughout the metro area. It has 13 contracts with various municipalities for the provision of specific services.

Until February 2020, fares were another source of revenue, but the RideKC system run by KCATA quit collecting them. According to the KCATA, the free-fare policy will continue “for the foreseeable future, dependent on identifying a funding source.”

The transportation authority’s board of commissioners has instructed KCATA management to find new funding sources for the zero-fare program and complete a feasibility study by December on “the possible re-institution” of bus fares.

Also Tuesday, Jackson County votes had no stomach for a proposal to add a county-wide use tax on goods bought from out-of-state businesses that do not currently pay the 1.5% county sales tax.

County legislators had hoped that the tax would have brought in $30 million a year. Half of that would have been spent on renovating the Kansas City courthouse and the Historic Truman Courthouse in Independence. Some $10 million was earmarked for fixing roads and bridges and $5 million, according to the ballot language, would have been dedicated to providing “financial assistance to homeless persons and persons at risk of becoming homeless.”

In addition to his misgivings about the timing of the use tax ballot issue, White Jr. also felt the ballot’s language’s specificity about where the money would go was a bad idea.

In a letter to legislators in June, White said the proposed ballot language, “while well- intentioned, may be too specific for our long term-term flexibility.”

The money might be needed for future county projects not mentioned on the ballot, he wrote.

After the tax was defeated Tuesday night, the county legislator most out front in support of the ballot issue, Manny Abarca, laid the blame for its defeat on the county executive.

“It is clear, that the aftermath of the Frank White tax increases has poisoned the well for ANY county initiative,” he said in a direct message to The Star via the X social media platform. “When folks are willing to sacrifice solutions for homelessness, and stressed roads and bridges in their community it is clear that something is seriously wrong. “

©2023 The Kansas City Star


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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